A Look Inside The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Posted on April 11, 2018

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Jean Nouvel's 'Rain of Light' [photo credit - Raashid Riza].jpeg

As written for The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

There was much intrigue surrounding the Louvre Abu Dhabi ever since the announcement of its would-be presence ten years ago. Connoisseurs were dubious, yet piqued. Others anticipated a taste of the art world in the culture-dry sands of a petro-nation. Would “the Arab world’s first universal museum” live up to expectations?

When the doors were declared open for the public in November of last year, ticket-holders anticipating the artworks confined within most certainly did not expect that the first masterpiece to behold would be the building itself.

While architect Jean Nouvel’s design-eccentricity is his renowned signature trademark on any of his projects, his prowess at architectural conception truly shines through with the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the sunlight filtering through the latticed dome roofing, bathing its visitors with awe at the magnificence of the structure. Nouvel claims to have wanted to create the perception of light permeating the fronds of the palm tree in a desert oasis, and walking through the entry passage there is indeed an ephemeral, yet acute synergy with water and concrete.

The bar was set. As with any exquisite entrée, the next course was anticipated for greatness.

“Get ready to see humanity in a new light,” pledges the museum brochure as it charts out a map, guiding visitors through twelve galleries – which, through visual masterpieces, is a chronological and thematic comparison of cultures. Segregating galleries in this regard as opposed to geography was a conscious decision by the curators in wanting to highlight the museum’s key ethos – to transcend borders through artistic commonalities, focusing more on what unites the East with the West, rather than on what divides them.

An unorthodox, yet apt approach if taking into context the population variables of the United Arab Emirates alone (aside from considering the ethnicities of tourists visiting the museum) – a nation housing over 75 nationalities, together outnumbering the local Emiratis by approximately 88 percent.

The aficionado might find the notion of artefacts grouped in order of time and theme hard to grasp, but the challenge is a refreshing one.

The museum’s title may suggest otherwise, but the Louvre Abu Dhabi functions as an independent institution. The over 600 artworks on display is a collection of the museum’s own pieces, as well as those on loan from some of the more established French galleries. Also on loan is its name, borrowed from the more renowned French museum as part of an agreement between the governments of France and the United Arab Emirates – a pact that was conceived a whole decade before the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening.

As with any other established art vault, this museum too will host temporary, ‘visiting’ exhibits, maintaining at the same time its permanent collections.

An introductory ‘The Great Vestibule’ serves as a prelude to this journey through time, tutoring the visitor on the concept of chronological and thematic harmony. For instance, an artefact from Egypt of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus is positioned next to a medieval French sculpture of the Virgin and Child – together portraying the maternal love between mother and child.

The twelve galleries that follow chart the history of our civilisations in an uncomplicated layout within a number of box-like buildings. One can choose to follow a guided tour, or opt to leisurely contemplate the collection at one’s own pace.

Wandering through galleries titled ‘The First Great Powers,’ ‘The Magnificence of the Court,’ and ‘Challenging Modernity,’ the curatorial narrative is weaved into place.

Within ‘Universal Religions,’ rather self-explanatorily, ancient manuscripts of the Quran coexist in glass enclosures alongside Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian scriptures, as visitors pause undaunted, to read and reflect from the description cards on each piece.

Larger-than-life tapestries from the Orient sail us through ‘Asian Trade Routes’into later galleries featuring a Mediterranean treasury of painted porcelain and decorative objects intricately carved in ivory.

However, offering much-needed respite, and the chance to take a mental breather from the overwhelming cultural inhalation in between galleries, are floor-to-ceiling glass windows bequeathing a calming view of water lapping at the concrete shores of the museum’s exterior.

Notable relics from the many rooms vary from ingeniously constructed Babylonian astrolabes, to the somewhat bemusing red-lacquered commode from China. Artefacts of note however, include an imposing, larger-than-life sculpture of Rameses II, pharaoh of Egypt, and ‘The Monumental Statue with Two Heads’ from Jordan – one of the earliest sculptural representations of the human form ever discovered.

Popular draws in gilded frames include ‘La belle ferronnière’by Renaissance maestro Leonardo da Vinci (one of only fifteen of his artworks in existence), impressionists Claude Monet’s ‘La gare Saint-Lazare’ and Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, and Pablo Picasso’s surrealist ‘Portrait of a woman.’

Oriental-Bliss’ by Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian’s recognisable ‘Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black’ pull the weight of abstract modernists, before Chinese activist-artist Ai Weiwei snares all eyes in the museum’s final gallery with the phenomenal ‘Fountain of Light.’

While it is often the big names that steal the proverbial show, there are plenty of lesser known(yet brilliant) global art on display. ‘Food for Thought ‘Al-Muallaqat’’by Saudi Arabian artist Maha Malluh and ‘Bindu’ by the recently deceased Indian-born Parisian, Syed Haider Raza, are just a few examples of thought-provoking artworks that don’t deserve to be swept under the ornate rug.

Unlike the Musée du Louvre, its namesake in Abu Dhabi isn’t an all-day excursion. This visual expedition through the ages can wrap up in a few hours, and visitors will them find themselves docked at an expansive plaza showered yet again with Nouvel’s ‘Rain of Light.’

A nice little addition which ticket-holders with young ones in tow might choose to indulge in, is a colourful Children’s Museum –cleverly appealing to the target populace through interactive art and history themed activities and games.

It may well only be while pensively sipping a hot beverage at the museum coffee shop, or in discussion with fellow museum-goers, that one will truly come to comprehend the dexterity with which the curators have managed to ingrain the museum’s key tenet into our subconscious. A subliminal message of universality bound by era and story, with art being only a representation of a much larger dynamic of how in reality we have all evolved together over time. A conversation one does not expect to have at the conclusion of a visit to an establishment of the arts.

But perhaps in our current turbulent times, there is much more to learn from brushstrokes and porcelain than we think.

 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is located in Saadiyat island, approximately a twenty-minute drive from the Abu Dhabi airport. The museum is wheelchair accessible and offers wheelchairs and strollers on loan for the duration of your visit.

Tickets cost AED60 (LKR2500) for those aged 22years and above, and AED30 (LKR1250) for visitors aged 13-22.Entry is free for children, and disabled visitors with one companion. Guides tours are priced separately.

Opening hours are from 10am-8pm Saturday through Wednesday, and from 10am-10pm on Thursday and Friday. The museum is closed on Mondays.

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